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Happy Birthday, Mary Lee Robb!

Actress Mary Lee Robb’s first professional radio job in 1947 was a small one.  She was hired to play Pearl, the daughter of Abner Peabody (Norris “Tuffy” Goff) on the long-running comedy serial Lum ‘n’ Abner.  In a 1988 interview with author-historian Chuck Schaden (Speaking of Radio), Robb still remembered the two lines she had as Pearl: “I do” and “Don’t cry, Papa.”  (It was Pearl’s wedding day, you see.)  The recitation of those two lines netted her a fat fee of $45…but in order to join the radio actors’ union, Mary Lee had to fork over $75.  Fortunately for the actress who was born in Streator, Illinois on this date in 1930, there would be more radio work to follow—notably her beloved role as Marjorie Forrester Thompson on The Great Gildersleeve.

Though born in Streator, Mary Lee Robb spent her younger years in Chicago.  Her father Alex was an NBC executive there, as manager of the network’s Artists Service Bureau. (He had some experience with performers, having been a one-time manager of Amos ‘n’ Andy’s Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll…back in their Sam ‘n’ Henry days.) When the network relocated Mr. Robb to Hollywood, he enrolled the young Mary Lee in University High School in Los Angeles.  Upon graduation, the young actress attended UCLA to study drama. However, she was also receiving training in radio performance at the Geller Radio Workshop (formerly the Max Reinhardt Workshop).  She left UCLA in her sophomore year to actively pursue a radio acting career.

One of Mary Lee Robb’s fellow Geller Workshop students was Louise Erickson, the A Date with Judy star who was also playing the role of niece Marjorie Forrester on The Great Gildersleeve.  Mary Lee was also working on the Gildersleeve program, though she was hired to perform “off-mike babble”—where actors huddled around a microphone making “crowd noises.”  Then came the day that’s become a cliché in a million old movies: Erickson was running late and was going to miss a vital dress rehearsal.  Robb volunteered to read the Marjorie part so that the broadcast could be timed properly.  For one brief moment, it looked as if Mary Lee was going to have to go on the air to replace the tardy Louise…but Louise made it on time for the broadcast with five minutes to spare.  Still, Mary Lee made such a favorable impression as a “temporary Marjorie” that when Louise left The Great Gildersleeve at the end of the 1947-48 season, the show’s creative minds hired Robb as her replacement.

By the time Mary Lee Robb got the job as Marjorie, she was already starting to build a radio resume.  On occasion, she provided the baby cries for little Robespierre, the baby brother of Snooks Higgins on Fanny Brice’s The Baby Snooks Show.  Robb also had a recurring role on Maxwell House Coffee Time as Emily Vanderlipp—the teenage girl who lived next door to George Burns and Gracie Allen. (Robb credited George Burns with teaching her everything she knew about comedy timing.)  The actor who played Emily’s boyfriend on George & Gracie’s half-hour was Richard Crenna, who Mary Lee would “marry” on The Great Gildersleeve (Dick played Marjorie’s boyfriend Bronco Thompson).  Other shows on Robb’s aural c.v. include Family TheatreFather Knows BestFibber McGee & MollyThe Railroad HourRed Ryder, and This is Your FBI.

Mary Lee Robb’s other recurring radio gig was on The Penny Singleton Show, an NBC summer series starring the former Blondie actress as a war widow attempting to balance her work as a realtor with raising her two daughters.  Robb portrayed the older daughter Dorothy (also known as “DeeGee,” age 13), while her younger sister Sue (8) was played by Sheila James Kuehl (who would go on to portray Zelda Gilroy on TV’s The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis).  Rounding out the cast of the Singleton show were Jim Backus (as Penny’s real estate partner), Gale Gordon, Bea Benaderet, and Sarah Selby.

In her half-hour interview with Chuck Schaden in 1988, Mary Lee Robb shared fond memories of The Great Gildersleeve, particularly the story arc in which Marjorie became Mrs. Bronco Thompson.  The cast went all out for the May 10, 1950 event, dressing up in full wedding regalia for the studio audience. (Look magazine even featured the Gildy cast preparing for the nuptials in a May 23rd article entitled “Gildersleeve Gives the Bride Away.”) When Schaden jokingly asked her if her dedication extended to Marjorie’s pregnancy, Robb laughed and said: “That would have been going a little too far, I’m afraid.”  (Mary Lee didn’t marry in real life until 1952, with a second union in 1983.)  Mary Lee remained with the Gildersleeve program until the birth of her daughter Alexandra in 1954, when she decided to retire from show business. (Although, one source reports she later did voiceover work with the Disney studios.) Robb would become a longtime member of the Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters, participating in radio recreations and discussion panels until her passing in 2006 at the age of 80.

Radio Spirits features much of Mary Lee Robb’s signature radio work on The Great Gildersleeve collection For Corn’s Sake (liner notes by you-know-who), but there’s also a classic Gildersleeve outing on our new situation comedy compendium Great Radio Sitcoms.  Happy birthday, Mary Lee!


  1. Scott Cowden says:

    Thanks for another wonderful biography of these old time radio stars!

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